#MyrtleMondays–From Page to Seam: Making an 1890s Cycling Costume

Last month, when I debuted my 1890s cycling costume (aka “Victorian Velma”) at Planet Comicon, there wasn’t enough time to get as many photos as I would have liked, and they were missing a critical component: my bicycle! I have finally rectified that, and would like to tell you all about this epic costuming endeavor, which has evolved side-by-side with the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries.

As a historical costumer and cosplayer, I take a keen interest in the sartorial lives of my characters, and whenever possible, I like to craft costumes inspired by my books. With the Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries, most of those costuming impulses have been inflicted on eighteen-inch dolls:

Dresses from the covers of Premeditated Myrtle and How to Get Away with Myrtle. (Cold-Blooded Myrtle costumes coming soon!)

But there was one ensemble I knew I had to make for myself. Myrtle and Miss Judson are avid cyclists, and in the late 1800s, bicycles represented freedom and modernity to girls and young women like Myrtle. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since I was Myrtle’s age, but writing the books has rekindled my own interest in biking!

Read more in my post Victorian Girls on Bicycles!

Women’s clothes of the Victorian era were bulky and layered, and the long skirts and multiple petticoats could present a hazard in the ever-growing sport of cycling. (Most people know that girls’ and women’s bikes, even today, are designed without a horizontal crossbar between the seat and the handlebars, to make room for cycling in a skirt.) Enterprising sportswomen and clothiers began to develop more practical garments for the endeavor. One of the most iconic and well-recognized elements of this period costume is the bloomers:

This mid-1890s French fashion plate shows off stylish and practical togs for the female cyclist and motorist.

Bloomers were typically paired with lightweight cotton blouses called shirtwaists, like the ones sported by these racers in London in 1895:

For all-season wear, a jacket or cape was required:

And no ensemble was complete without a hat:

My cycling costume includes the following components:

The Shirtwaist

In the spirit of one of my own favorite fictional detectives, Velma Dinkley of “Scooby Doo” fame, I designed my cycling ensemble in shades of orange and brick red. My shirtwaist is made from a quilting-weight cotton print in a lovely Victorian stripe. I used a pattern from Black Snail Designs, based on an original shirtwaist in the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

The Black Snail pattern and its extant inspiration

Adorning the collar is a vintage brooch that belonged to my grandmother, a writer and actor who would have enjoyed seeing her grown-up granddaughter incorporate it into a costume.

(And lest you fear I’ve departed radically from period-correct colors, here’s a nice coral orange shirtwaist to ease your mind!)

You can see how voluminous the garment is. These weren’t only worn for cycling, but the looser fit of the shirtwaist affords athletes (or anyone doing physical labor) a lot of freedom of movement, without the danger of the garment getting caught up in machinery.

Cycling Bloomers

A fashion innovation combining safety, modesty, and up-to-the-minute style, bloomers were the ideal garment for Victorian sportswomen, and not just for cycling—they were worn in activities from fencing to basketball to mountaineering.

These 1850s women are wearing their pantaloons for swimming

Nicknamed for American feminist Amelia Bloomer, who advocated a shortlived trend for women’s trousers in the 1850s, these so-called “bloomers” didn’t catch on until the popularity of the bicycle took off in the 1880s. (My first novel, A Curse Dark as Gold, was named an Amelia Bloomer Project selection, celebrating children’s books with strong female characters. And yes, I made a costume for that one, too!)

I used another Black Snail pattern for my bloomers, and sewed them from brick red cotton sateen. Bloomers should be made from sturdy fabric that won’t show dirt, grass stains, sweat, or bicycle grease, and will protect you against the hazards of the road.

A critical feature of good bloomers (and girls’ and women’s clothes in general) is capacious pockets, and the Black Snail bloomer pattern has huge ones!

Seriously, you could carry a cat in these things!

It took me a bit to get used to the odd feeling of the bloomers–they’re not like wearing pants or skirts (historical or modern), being tight in odd places (like the knee straps) and hugely voluminous in others. But I adapted swiftly, and have become quite smitten with their smart style and practicality!

Deerstalker Cap & Ulster Cape

In keeping with tradition, I naturally rounded out my ensemble with an ulster-style cape and a deerstalker cap. Read more about this iconic ensemble: Dressing the Victorian Detective

Although I won’t be swapping out my capris and T-shirts for every ride I take, I have loved every minute of my journey into Victorian cycling. My vintage 1950s Schwinn rounds out the experience!

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